In case you've missed it, Yule is fast approaching. If the relentless jingling of bells and ambiguous consent through the medium of song haven't done anything for you yet; here are some absolutely wild Yuletide traditions from the United Kingdom of old. Some, I'm sure you'll agree, are long overdue a comeback - others are simply the least Plague-friendly things imaginable. And yes - they all sound like sex acts. KISSING BUSH A 'Kissing Bush' is a custom that appears fairly late historically in folkloric terms and seems to be most recorded between the late 18th and mid 19th century. In England and Wales, this involves a 5 of 6 foot structure, covered with greenery, mistletoe, apples, sweets, candles and paper decorations which was erected specifically to kiss beneath until generally the end of the '12th Night' (6th Jan). Any of the 'Kissing Bush' left standing or any twigs left behind, would attract goblins into the home - and who wants that. Tradition in Devon and the Welsh Marches suggested that the 'Kissing Bush' be left up all year as magical protection for the household. The Kissing Bough' or Mistletoe was traditionally fed to the first cow to calve in the new year, according to Worcestershire farming tradition - to bring luck to the herd! THE ASHEN FAGGOT
The Faggot, in this instance, is a bundle of Ash Sticks, not dissimilar to the Yule Log. The Ash Sticks/Ash Brands or 'Ash Beams' were often green and nine was the traditional number per bundle. On Christmas Eve, The Ashen Faggot would be passed around, containing a piece of The Faggot from the previous year; then placed on the fire by the eldest member of the community and burnt in the hearths of the people of Devon and Somerset; while onlookers sung hymns and songs aka 'Dunster Carols' (In times gone by, each area would have maintained their own local Carols, many of which have been long forgotten, but the village of Dunster has maintained their tradition). The twigs and branches in these bundles would be bound with green Ash or bendy Willow and as each binding burst in the flames, the party-goers would drink a toast to The Ashen Faggot!
THE CHRISTMAS OLD WIFE Known as the Yule Clog (North East England), Yule Block (Midlands/West Count
ry), Gule Block (Lincolnshire) and The Mock (Cornwall) - the Yule log seemed to be the tradition of bringing in a huge log to warm your hearth and home as well as assist with all of the cooking over Yuletide. Highland tradition names the log as 'Yeel Cyarlin' or 'The Christmas Old Wife' and they would sometimes carve the wood into a female shape. Fetching the Yule log became a game in many parts of the U.K. In Somerset, there is a recorded tradition of a log 'Bucking-Bronco' - a man or boy would ride the Yule log into the house - if he managed to stay mounted on the log he would be rewarded heartily with food and wine. Other traditions involved the equally human interest of 'biggest log' competitions and prizes for the speediest log retrieval.
The Mari Lywd (pron. Marry Loo-eed) or Grey Mare, is the name of this beloved Midwinter character from Welsh folk tradition. A horse skull, mounted on a big stick, covered in a white sheet that hides the human operator and part of the skull so it appears hooded. The Mari skull will often have black, glass or painted eyes and a clacking jaw and this creature would arrive with a little band of men to sing with The Mari Lywd. The group would arrive at someones door and sing outside it about how the occupant should definitely let The Mari in, in order to get a blessing. The inhabitant would then sing back refusing - and this epic rap battle of history would back and forth until the Mari gave up and begged for kindness. The Mari Lwyd and its party would then be let in, fed and watered, the Mare would chase people and everyone would (somewhat drunkenly) bless the house for the year! I'm sort of obsessed with Britain's weird habit of including twisted, home made "horses" in their old traditions. I wrote an article all about it that you can find in Issue 17 of Witch Magazine. (You Can Buy It Here!)
SPEEDING THE PLOUGH The first Monday after the twelfth night (6th of Jan) is sometimes known as 'Plough Monday' and is an overhang from a time when the plough would be run through the fire to encourage a good start to the farming year. There has also been a tradition documented in the Scottish Highlands, of a decorated Plough being dragged door to door on the 1st or 2nd of February by children in costumes that ask for food, money or drink. If you refuse them, they plough up your garden! More Scottish and Northern English traditions involve pouring whiskey over the blades of the plough or leaving pieces of bread and cheese on the blades overnight to become food for nature spirits – sometimes in Ireland, even leaving food in the furrows or throwing it out into the fields.